by RIP RENSE
Beware The Wheelers!
(Nov. 19, 2003)
"But she looked at each
letter carefully, and finally discovered that these words were written in the sand:
'BEWARE THE WHEELERS!'
'That's rather strange," declared the
hen, when Dorothy had read aloud the words. 'What do you suppose the Wheelers
---from Ozma of Oz, by L.Frank Baum
This past summer was one of the
less pleasant I've had in quite some time, thanks largely to the loss of my dear friend, B.C. the cat, so I've been feeling less than effervescent. On top of
that, I contracted a weird virus that has caused me to walk like a drunk---
"labyrinthitis" is the M.C. Escher-esque name--and while I don't mind walking
like a drunk while drunk, I prefer having my balance the rest of the time.
So my seratonin has not exactly been flowing
freely. Not a lot of snap and crackle in the old pop. Not meowing with a
full cat. Of course, I should have known this would make
me prey to The Wheelers.
What do you suppose Wheelers are?
Allow me to attempt an explanation. . .
The Wheelers I knew were not
in the Oz books, but they should have been. They were part Currier & Ives, part
Salvador Dali, cousins of Ma and Pa Kettle and Micawber. They existed in a parallel
universe accessible only to those with heart, curiosity, and an orbit that tilted on its
own axis. They seemed to know anything about anything, whether butterflies or Jussi
Bjoerling or how to build a chicken coop. They seemed to be endless, the doors and windows
of their house spilling out new Wheelers, or so it seemed, every time you'd visit.
And the house, well, it was somewhere between American
Gothic and The Munsters, a frayed-at-the-edges manse with big, friendly opened-eye windows,
a little spooky after dark, ever so humble in the day. It seemed to have
always been there, on Mountain View Avenue in Mar Vista, and
that it always would be. . .
The Wheelers were my neighbors, my
friends, my Oz, and a home away from home, at a troubled time. Or rather, a home away from a home
away from home. At the age of sixteen, I had been invited to move out by a
wicked witch who claimed to be my stepparent, and bunk with my father's
secretary. No, no, I wasn't taken with her dictation skills---this was a
generous, matronly woman who had a spare room for rent, with a nice view of
a gorgeous apricot
tree out the back window. All-in-all, it was most preferable to living in a house where I had
been instructed to keep to my room whenever the wicked witch was lurking about.
Little did I know that these
would bring about my first encounter with Wheelers.
Of course, I knew them long before I moved into
their neighborhood---or at least a couple of
them. Everyone at Venice High School, it seemed, knew at least one Wheeler---whether from
church, or from fishing at the Santa Monica Pier, or because Pa Wheeler had built their
restaurant, or.. . .
Ma Wheeler---Stellouise, or "Weezy," as she was known to
friends and family---greeted everyone with a voice as lusty and unabashed as Pavarotti's, and a
laugh too ingenuous for this larcenous world.
They had a way of making their presence
known, these Wheelers. You always knew one was in range because a wave of smiles would
kind of break out in advance of their arrival. My schoolchum Betsy Wheeler was like that,
as was her big sister, Susie. It wasn't anything as ordinary as telling jokes (although
they did that), or being aggressively witty (it's in their DNA), or being unfailingly
generous or unbearably happy or unbearably sad or infectiously joyful. Wheelers are all
these these things, just for starters, sometimes all at once. They are cursed with a sensitivity equal to their
powers of perception (a recipe for heartbreak.) Piquancy is where they live.
But trying to quantify the essence of Wheeler
is like greasing a pig (something they could undoubtedly do, while rapidly explaining the
history of pig-greasing, grease, and Ancient Greece.) I shouldn't really try. But I must
give a hint, in order that the climax of this column carry proper impact. So here
goes. . .
Many an evening of my senior year
in high school was spent at Wheeler Manor, on Mountain View. I'd get to feeling
low, or wondering who/what/if I was, and wondering would lead to wandering, which
would lead to Wheelers. The house was a big rambling two-storey behind a bunch of big trees
that, obviously realizing there were Wheelers inside, had jumped in front of the place to
protect it from the mundane and ordinary. A timid knock on the door
would inevitably lead to
a clamor of voices on the other side, and in a moment, I would be bathed in yellow light,
my hands grabbed by little smiling Wheelers who would pull me inside, yelling "Rip's
Oh, it's been a long time, but I can still
smell the place, and it smelled lived in and honest---from the burbling stews that always
seemed to be clattering lids atop an ancient pot-bellied cast iron stove, to the comfy old couches
littered with throw-pillows and well-thumbed little kids' books, to the popping fire in
the hearth that always seemed to be going, rain or shine. . .
Old "Foshy," as she was known---the
battle-axe grandma---puttered around, muttering to herself, casting a wary eye that seemed
to say she would either be very nice to you, or put you in the oven and baste you,
depending on her mood. . .Ma Wheeler---Stellouise, or "Weezy," as she was known
to friends and family---greeted everyone with a voice as lusty and unabashed as Pavarotti's, and a
laugh too ingenuous for this larcenous world. Good old Matt Wheeler was a twelve-year-old
realization of Huck Finn, in overalls, bare feet, and a head full of old-fashioned
American boy information about how to build things, fix things, make things,
un-make things, hammer
things. . .17-year-old Susie was a budding mezzo-soprano who also did not-bad impressions
of Paul Robeson doing "Roll, Jordan, Roll". . .16-year-old Betsy would rush
about, seeming to be simultaneously involved in helping every person in the house with a
different matter. . .Six-foot-four Morley, the pater familias, was a fireman who
was wont to pick you up under one arm and hoot like a great ape, then turn around and
explain the best fishing spots in Southern California, or how to find the rarest
butterflies. . .Then there were the Wheeler munchkins: little Sally, Emily, Amy. . .
Within minutes of arrival, I would forget
that I lived alone---because, in fact, with the Wheelers a block away, I didn't. Someone
would park me in a chair, the little kids would sit at my feet, laughing, and Susie or
Betsy would rub my shoulders. Some nights, I'd fall asleep in the chair, much to my
embarrassment, and steal home around midnight. Other nights, Weezy would sit down and we'd
yap about music, sometimes culminating with her playing Bjoerling records on the Hi-Fi, or
an old musical. . .
Wheeler conversations were. . .free-wheeling
(had to say it.) They tacked and veered from family tales (Foshy grew up in a sod house in the
Indian Territory of Oklahoma, Weezy was born in a stranger's house San Jacinto, on the way
to California) to the best way to kill a chicken (hypnotize it by petting it, then quickly
whip the head round, knocking the bird out before execution) to geology, zoology, the
etymology of local community names ("Las Pulcas" means "the fleas"),
or botany major Morley's latest surreptitious cuttings from the local botanical gardens,
taking root in the back yard. . .
Nature is a brute, as my father used to say,
because it discards without a touch of sentiment such things as roses and kitty-cats---and
families. So it happened with the Wheeler household.
There were tales of a sister-in-law
dying in an accident, and the family taking her orphaned children in until
the house seriously overflowed. A couple of years later, Weezy died, and the
family fractured and disappeared. I didn't see or hear another Wheeler for
20 years---until Betsy showed up at our 20th high school reunion in 1991.
The siblings were all still in town, she told me, and we have all happily
reestablished contact, sporadically, at Thanksgivings, Christmases. Here's a
phrase I don't use often: what a blessing.
But just what does all this have to do with my recent M.C. Escher-impaired
viral summer stroll? Well, as I said, I've been feeling lousy of
late, so the other day I took my virus and mood out for a stumble in the fresh air. I was,
once again, sort of wondering who/what/if I was, and the wondering had led to
wandering, which, of course, led to. . .
That's right, I bumped into
not one, but two Wheelers---in different locations, quite by accident. The odds of encountering even one
familiar face in L.A., of course, are about as great as Oprah Winfrey acquiring sudden
humility. And the odds of bumping into two---let alone two persons who are
locations, within an hour of each other, are probably incalculable. Yet there was
Matt---the one-time Huck Finn who could fix anything---working on a house (fixing
something, of course), and shouting out my name. I stopped, and we jawed and yucked about
life for a little while.
About twenty minutes later, Matt's big sister,
Susie, walked into a little tea place on Sawtelle called Café Paradiso, where I like to
read the paper. She had no idea her brother was in the vicinity, and vice-versa. So we
jawed and yucked about life for a while. (And she did her still-excellent Paul Robeson
And as I later wobbled and weaved
my way home, some very old, echoey feelings returned--- feelings of the sort I'd once
experienced when seeking company and warmth in that big frayed-around-the-edges
Mar Vista, full of happy kids and burbling stews, so long ago.
Feelings that said things really might not be so bad, after
These Wheelers work in mysterious ways.
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